Elizabeth Gilbert is on Substack, and I follow her. Best known for her breakout novel, Eat, Pray, Love, she’s a journalist, speaker, and writer. Her Substack is called Letters From Love and more than ten thousand subscribe.
Letters From Love is the most uncomfortable Substack I read. I write that statement with wry humor. The premise is writing love letters to oneself.
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
When I first came across it, I was equally horrified and attracted. I poked around, reading here and there, and realized quickly Elizabeth and I share certain experiences. I already knew this, because years ago I came across her brilliant piece on tribal shaming, which I immediately blogged about.
It takes one to know one.
When I found Gilbert on Substack I subscribed, so her newsletter comes regularly into my Inbox. Sometimes I ignore it for days, but sooner or later I open it and read. She posts love letters she’s written to herself. Publicly! She also has a podcast, does interviews, and posts love letters others have written to themselves.
I can’t help but notice my violent reactions. Me being me, I don’t choose to turn away and read something more comfortable. I have questions. What is my deal? I’ve been working for more than ten years on self-care and self-love, on reparenting myself and healing old trauma. Why am I not delighted with the idea of a practice of writing love letters to myself?
My first reaction is to crawl through the screen and beg her not to expose herself like this. Beg them all not to expose themselves. Don’t they understand how dangerous it is? Haven’t they learned that a display of this kind of vulnerability will attract destroyers with stones and blades and (worst of all), terrible, terrible words of contempt? Oh, and don’t forget lethal indifference.
(If you’re not paying attention, I’ve now told you everything you need to know about the way I grew up.)
Except clearly the sky is not falling. More than ten thousand people are reading Gilbert’s love letters, and she goes on writing and publishing. The discussions within her community are neither indifferent nor contemptuous. On the contrary, they’re supportive and tender.
Which leads me to conclude my red alert reaction is about me rather than the practice of writing love letters to oneself.
How can they do this? I wondered.
Could I do this?
No, no, no, not to publish! I reassured myself. Just for me. Like my journal. My eyes only. A delete key. No one ever needs to know.
But there was a problem. Elizabeth writes to herself with endearments. Creative, funny, quirky endearments, like “my glinting little piece of foil from a gum wrapper.”
OK, now that’s fun! Words are so much fun!
What kind of endearments would I address myself with?
I’ve had pet names for my kids and my animals. No one else, really. Certainly not myself. My tone with myself has mostly been the harsh, hectoring, contemptuous, cold voice I internalized from the adults around me as a child.
But, words … If I had a child just like the child I was, what endearments would make her giggle and feel loved and seen?
So I started a list of whimsical endearments. A very private list. So don’t ask! I was a little ashamed of myself, but no one else need ever know …
Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash
The list was fun, because it was a creative exercise. I can do creative exercise. It occurred to me part of my resistance to love letters (either giving or receiving) has to do with my disbelief in words. (Ironic.) Words can say anything. People say anything. The proof is in action. The older I get, the less interested I am in words, and the less I believe them. Demonstrate. Act. Show me, don’t tell me. As I’ve worked to heal I’ve developed routines for self-care, for eating well, for exercise, for sleep, for writing. I’ve been successful, and take much better care of myself than I ever have before. I take better care of myself than anyone ever has before, in fact.
But I haven’t written love letters to myself. I would have told you I could do so, if I wanted to. If I thought they’d have value. If I thought I’d believe them …
I grew up with emotional withholding. I’ve believed I’ve broken that pattern with my own children and my loved ones, including my animals. But now I wonder. Isn’t demonstration of love with no words a little sterile? I know the mixed message of loving words and abusive actions is devastating. Is active demonstration of love without words also confusing? Am I withholding from myself? Obligation, responsibility, duty – all these I’m very good at. But those are stony words. Where is the tenderness, the humor, the generosity? How about compassion? I feel those for others. I’ve spoken them from the heart; written love poems, love letters, notes, and cards – for others. Could I learn to feel and express them for myself?
Then I got sick with COVID, the events of the last couple of years (traumatic, protracted move; my mother’s decline and death) caught up with me, and I felt miserable. At once, I began putting pressure on myself to get back to writing, get back to work, get back to exercise, take out the trash, do the shopping, and generally pull myself together, because, after all, the world is full of bleeding, suffering people and I have a good life, a privileged life, and don’t deserve to feel sorry for myself and be lazy.
Not a love letter, in other words.
In the middle of the week during which I sat on the couch, alternately shivering and burning and blowing my nose, I wrote myself a love letter.
Well, maybe a let’s-see-if-I-can-tolerate-you letter.
It was an extremely strange experience. In fact, it made me cry, which didn’t help my congestion. Or my cough. At the time I had no sense of taste or smell, and I reflected that it was like that. When I tried to turn toward myself with love, tenderness, affection, whatever you want to call it, there was nothing. Just … nothing. A thick, numb shell between me and myself.
It made me so sad. Immediately upon the heels of that, I was ashamed. Because, you know, self-pity.
Almost as bad as self-love.
Wait now, what?
It’s bad to love yourself … if you don’t deserve it.
And, readers, I thought I’d left that belief far behind in the dust.
Then I began to feel angry, and I told myself I was going to start practicing writing love letters to myself. Because I deserved and deserve love as much as anyone else. I’m not important enough to be the most loathsome person in the world.
- How does the idea of this practice make you feel? Can you write a love letter to yourself? With endearments and everything?
- If you could write a love letter to yourself, how would you feel about making it public?
- What do you most need to hear from someone who loves you? Would it have power if you wrote it to yourself?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Two weeks ago my 87-year-old demented mother fell in her memory care unit and broke a hip for the second time in less than a year. Eight days later she died in a hospital under the care of Hospice, my brother at her side.
Until I sat down to write this, I was afraid I had lost my words, lost the need to write them, lost the ability to form them into meaning. But I haven’t. I’m still a writer. This remains. That’s a relief.
Oh, I’ve been writing. Lists. Notes. An obituary. Texts. Updates to family and friends. Daily journaling. But it hasn’t been creative writing. It hasn’t been this blog, or my fiction. These last two weeks have passed by, the first in a blur of pity and anguish, and the second in numb relief glazed with exhaustion, and I have not posted or published. I haven’t kept track of the days; they spill into one another, as the days and nights blended together while my mother lay dying and we waited.
For a time words have simply been inadequate to relieve the pressure of my feelings in any organized or coherent way. They flew away from me, leaving a series of kaleidoscopic impressions, sensual details so vivid they frightened me with their power.
While my mother lay dying I reread my childhood copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. Reading has also largely failed to sustain me during this time. I find myself unable to focus. I read a paragraph or two, and then realize I’ve been sitting staring into space, out the window or into the garden, not hearing, not seeing, not even thinking. Just sitting. But I needed a companion for the night watches, something comforting and familiar. Something innocent.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash
The fan in my window purred during those hours, blowing in cool night air and an occasional moth or mosquito. Every night, when I go to bed, I light a tea light in a candle lantern. When calls or texts reached me, I knew when I opened my eyes if it was before midnight or after, according to whether the candle still burned. Propped up on pillows, glasses on, my small bedside lamp alight, I spoke to Mom’s facility staff, emergency department doctors and nurses. I texted with my family. I read, the well-remembered illustrations making me smile as I communed with Rat, Mole, Badger, and the ridiculous Toad, finding respite for a few minutes before turning off the light and lying awake in the dark room, listening to the fan, feeling my heart beat, resting, breathing, waiting.
While my mother lay dying and after, I’ve stained wooden pallets. My partner and I are building a 3-bin compost system against the back yard fence. We set out sawhorses. I found an old brush, a rag, a stirring stick. We bought stain. I lay a pallet on the sawhorses, brush away dirt and debris, and paint every surface. The raw wood soaks in the oil-based stain, a rich brown color. The brush is more and more frazzled. I’m sloppier than I would be if painting a wall. The pallets are splintery. Some of the boards are split or loose. I bend over, the sun hot on the back of my neck and my bare arms. Mosquitos bite me. Stain drips between the boards as I brush their edges, dappling the sawhorses, falling onto the filthy old cream-colored jeans I’ve been wearing all summer in the garden, and onto my worn-out sneakers, used only for outdoor work now. As I maneuver between the boards, stain smears the skin of my hands and wrists. I kept the phone close, in a patch of shade.
This is the only sustained work I’ve been able to do. Now and then I wash a few dishes. I’ve done a couple loads of laundry. I go out into the garden, note the trimming, pruning, composting, mowing waiting to be done, and turn away. It all feels like too much. I don’t know where to start. It’s impossible to open the garden shed, get the tools, wheel out the wheelbarrow.
But the pallets. I can do that. It’s a simple task, direct. I don’t need to make any choices. Each side takes fifteen or twenty minutes. When I’ve finished a side, I wrap the brush in an old plastic bag, cover the can loosely, let the pallet dry an hour and a half in the sun. Then I turn it over and begin again. Two coats each side. One side after another.
Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash
The smell of stain. The prickly feeling of intense sun on my skin. I think about compost, recycling, breaking down life to sustain new life. I think of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I wonder if I’ll ever use the compost bins without thinking of Mom. I wonder who names the colors of stain and paint. I chose ‘Canyon Brown’ for this project. I vaguely hear birds, cars passing by. Small groups of women walk by in clumps, hospital employees on their lunch break, talking about families, gardens, school starting, hospital gossip. I should be at work, on that same campus, just a ten-minute walk away. I should be, but I’m not. I’m here, staining pallets, waiting for Mom to die and then on bereavement leave.
Am I bereaved? How would I know? I wonder why I don’t care enough to follow the thought. I let it drift away.
I decide I want to make bread. I don’t eat bread often, so rarely make it any more. But my rosemary is bushy and ready to be harvested, and someone brought fresh home-grown garlic into work to share before … before all this. So I make a sponge, stirring together milk, a little sugar, yeast, water. I chop fresh rosemary and garlic, very fine. I take flour out of the freezer and let it warm. The dough is heavy under my hands, sticky at first and gradually becoming supple and smooth. The earthy smells of garlic and rosemary vanquish the smell of stain in my nostrils. I turn the dough, kneading. The timer ticks off seconds and minutes. I clean the bowl, grease it, use a linen towel to cover it for rising. I put it in the oven for safe keeping, because the cats are likely to lie on it or step in it, or nibble at it if I leave it out. The bread, like the pallets, is a project in stages. I don’t have to focus on any one step for more than a few minutes. I move between the kitchen and the back yard with my phone, not thinking, not planning, just taking the next step, and the next. I can’t remember times, so I write them down. About 90 minutes for the stain to dry. An hour for the bread to rise. Another 90 minutes for the pallet to dry. Another hour for the shaped loaves to rise. Another 90 minutes. An hour for baking.
Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash
At the end of the day, I have two enormous round loaves of bread to cool, slice, and put in the freezer. This batch will last me for a year. I have finished another pallet. I leave it on the sawhorses to dry overnight. My stained hands smell like garlic.
I haven’t cried since the last night call, my brother telling me Mom was gone. Perhaps I cried all my tears before she went. I receive condolences with all the grace I can muster. People talk to me about God and heaven. They talk to me about Mom. They talk to me about their own experiences of death. I try to be gracious. I try to look like I’m listening, like I’m there. With my brother and sons, my partner, I can be real. The faces of my friends comfort me. They don’t need anything from me. They don’t ask for anything. I can see their concern, their love for me, their sorrow. They hug me, and smile. They talk to me about small things, the daily things I’ve lost track of – family, friends, outings, work. I pick up a friend’s daughter and feel almost normal, doing an ordinary thing, a manageable task I cannot fail.
I realize part of my feeling of unreality is rooted in a loss of identity. I catch sight of myself in the bathroom mirror and pause. I rarely look at myself in the mirror. This woman, who is she? She isn’t the disappointing daughter any more. She can’t be, if there’s no mother to disappoint. What else is she? Who else is she? I look into my own eyes and feel no shame, no guilt. Did Mom take them with her? How will I navigate my life without them on my shoulders, without the knowledge that Mom is alone, suffering, needing? For fifty years I was at her side, day and night, year after year, ineffectual, helpless to fix or heal her physical pain, her dysfunction. Feeling my failure, my powerlessness, knowing I more often made it worse than better as time went on, even though she clung closer and closer to me as she aged. She could not release me and I almost waited too long to release myself.
But the geographical distance I put between us brought no real release. She still suffered. She declined, grew confused. Her body aged and began to run down. She was just as lonely without me as she was with me, just as emotionally remote, just as relentlessly needy. She cut herself off from me, but I still carried her. Internally, I still orbited around her. I still agonized for her.
I still loved her. I always loved her. I accepted she could not find me lovable, but it made no difference. She was my mother, and I loved her. All I ever wanted was for her to be well, and happy, but I could not make it so, and in her eyes it was my responsibility to fill her need. Indeed, she told me long ago her physical pain started with her pregnancy with me. I accepted the blame, and was heartbroken, and have tried desperately to make up for it ever since.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
Now Death has come to stop her suffering. Has mine stopped, too? I don’t know. I’m too numb to tell. But I feel different. I feel … released. I prayed for her release and freedom, not mine, but perhaps they were linked. Many times a day I think of her, hear her voice in my head, and I realize with a painful clench of my heart she’s gone. It’s over. I can’t humiliate her anymore because of what I wear, how my hair looks, what I do, who I sleep with, or, most of all, what I write. She’s moved beyond humiliation. I can’t fail her anymore. And that’s a soaring, joyful, unbelievable thought. I can’t fail her anymore.
I wonder if I’ll finally feel good enough, if I’ll do a good enough job, live a good enough life. Might I simply enjoy my small talents, my joyful work, my community, my garden? Might I immerse myself in the loveliness of life without the gnawing guilt of knowing I’m happy when she’s not, I’m companioned when she’s not, I’m relaxed and rested and peaceful when she’s not, I’m laughing when she’s not?
The last couple of times I spoke to Mom, I told her it was okay to rest now, she could let go, be at peace. We told her her loved ones and animals were well and happy, and she could relax.
I told her, and I meant it. Was I telling myself, too?
She could not release me, yet I am released. Did Death break the chains when he gathered her in? Or now, at last, have I released myself, now that she’s moved entirely out of my power and knowledge?
As I write this, it’s Wednesday afternoon. I have finished another pallet. I have written. I have sat in the sun, read a paragraph or two at a time of an old Edna Ferber novel, rested my eyes on the garden. The lily stems are turning dry and brown, as are the leaves. Sunflowers bloom. The sun is hot. The phone has been sitting on my kitchen table all morning, silent, as I go in and out. I have balanced my checking account, scheduled a private swim lesson in a home pool, ironed a tablecloth and three napkins. Tomorrow I go back to work.
A new page of my life has turned. I can’t read it yet. It’s enough to sit with it in my lap, letting my gaze wander over blue sky and afternoon clouds, the garden, our old cars, the worn wooden boards of the porch, the bruise on my left knee, the mosquito bites on my right arm, the smears of stain on my hands. It’s too bright in the sun to read this new page, too hot, too much effort. I’ll read it later.
I dare to be at peace.
Daughter’s Dream (July 2014)
I dreamt I carried my mother.
The car had slipped out of her control
with a blind will of its own,
and I thought
I knew she shouldn’t be driving.
We landed in water.
I swam to her and held her in my arms.
Then the water was gone.
I carried my mother,
but she left my embrace,
slipping free of her embattled flesh.
Irrevocably, I felt her go.
I was alone.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
Empty beds stood all around me
but the sheets were disordered and dank,
Smeared with shit.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
There was no clean place to lay her down.
I carried the vacant body of my mother,
seeking to slip into my own freedom,
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
We’re having a rainy summer here in Maine. I don’t mind. In fact, I feel grateful when I’m reminded how many billions of people are suffering extreme heat conditions and other severe weather around the planet.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
It does make it challenging to get outdoors, however. When a day off coincides with no rain, I disappear into the garden.
This was my first spring in our new house. Last spring and summer were necessarily about surviving the move. Outdoor work consisted of picking up trash and getting to know our little piece of the world.
This spring I went to work as the snow melted, raking, pulling weeds, thinking about where to put a compost system, laying out new beds. A morning here, an afternoon there, a snatched few hours in between work and life’s other demands.
I notice when I do put everything aside to play in the garden I’m filled with toxic shame at the end of the day. Certainly, I dug and weeded, knelt and stooped, barrowed and raked, pruned and planted and trimmed until I was sore and exhausted as well as renewed by my time under the sky on the earth’s body. In proportion to my joy I feel self-hatred. I did not work in the house. I did not pay bills. I did not do laundry. The sink is full of dirty dishes. The cats didn’t get my attention. I didn’t work on my blog or fiction. Instead, I ground dirt into my hands and nails, into the knees of my old jeans. My filthy clothes stink of bug spray. I’m sweaty, sunburned, and thirsty. I’m happy.
And there’s the rub.
Happiness is Not Allowed. If it makes me happy, I shouldn’t be doing it. If it makes me happy, I shouldn’t get paid for it. The only truly productive way to live is to do what is not joyful. Happiness is selfish and lazy.
The first commandment of life is Make Yourself Useful. Happiness doesn’t come into it.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
This internal voice has always been with me. I’m sure I wasn’t born with it, but when my memory starts the voice was already deeply rooted in my mind. The only things worth doing in life were repetitive, obligatory, dutiful activities. Responsibilities. Bonus points if the tasks were in service to someone else. An activity done for personal pleasure was a threat, a disobedience, a terrible betrayal.
Other people in my world were not happy; therefore, I had no right to be. Ever.
I recognize the lies, the rebellion and resentment, and the sinking heart accompanying this twisted belief. I know where the belief comes from. But still, still it triggers painful, cringing shame.
Yet I continue to snatch what hours I can to be in the garden. As I work, I think about my shame, the sadness of people who cannot allow themselves or anyone around them to be happy, and all the ways this particular belief has limited and inhibited me. So many of my passions are muted and hidden in the privacy of my own heart: Dance, writing, gardening, swimming. Oh, people know they’re activities I enjoy, but I hide my absolute, blazing passion for them behind a casual demeanor. Because I’m ashamed.
We have a corner lot, so a comparatively large garden space. I frequently clear patches of earth that lie bare under the sky, soaking in rain, sunshine, and receiving whatever seeds come. Sometimes it’s weeks before I get back to that same little patch, and I’m always delighted and surprised by how quickly new things come to grow wherever I’ve made a clearing. Some would call it all weeds. I call it life.
I’ve been thinking about the hard, muddy work of clearing, walking away, and then the miraculous return of life while we’re looking in another direction. I came across an article recently entitled “We are Defined by the Things We Don’t Do.” I’ve been thinking about that, too. Am I defined more by my choice to garden during a sunny afternoon or the fact that I didn’t clean the kitchen?
Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash
My hours in the garden, in the pool, dancing, writing, clear the ground of my being. Into that cleared ground come words, inspiration, delight, peace, rest, freedom. Without those hours to nurture and refresh me, my soil would grow hard and compacted, unreceptive and sterile. I cannot sustain myself with an endless round of housework and taking care of business. It’s not enough. No amount of efficient, effective housework gives me the joy I feel in the garden, or in typing words onto the page.
In short, my understanding of what it means to be “productive” does not make me happy or healthy.
So, what does it say about me as a person that my joy comes from such “selfish” and “lazy” activities? What kind of a terrible person chooses to grub in the garden rather than do the dishes and emotionally labor for others? What kind of a terrible person accepts payment for doing her heart’s delight?
A person like me, readers. A person like me.
I read a lot about mindfulness. I practice it in many different ways. It occurs to me, however, that my best moments and hours are spent mindlessly. The rhythm of swimming. The wordless seduction of music liberating me into dance. The sweat and texture and smell of working in the garden, the feel of the tools in my hands, the itch of a mosquito bite, the sear of sunlight on the tender skin at the nape of my neck. I’m not thinking. I’m not planning. I’m not trying or worrying. I just am. I have truly disappeared into the garden. And in that cleared ground of being the rest of my life, the necessary, the daily, the trivial things like wiping the counters and making the bed, are deeply rooted.
It’s in mindlessness that I find mindfulness. Mindlessness is a cleared patch of earth, dark, moist, rumpled, with seeds and roots and microbes and insects hidden below and the sky above. What will come to grow and live in that space? What will I weed out, and what will I nurture? What gifts, what treasures will come into the ground I have cleared?
The answers to those questions are none of my business now. The ground is cleared. Now I walk away, look in another direction, clear a patch on another side of the house, under the magnolia, maybe, or alongside the old well. Rain will come, and sun. Birds will come, insects. Roots and seeds. I will go inside, scrub the first layer of dirt out from under my nails, off my skin and cuticles. I’ll strip down and wipe insect repellent and sweat from my skin, treat bug bites. I’ll rehydrate, change into clean clothes. I’ll feel the tension between my pleasure in my outside work and the shame and reproach of the undone inside work.
And somewhere, when the time is right in some future moment, I’ll go back to the memory of that patch of earth, still chilly from winter when I cleared it, now thick with new life that crept in when I wasn’t looking, and I’ll find meaning and mindfulness. I’ll find creative inspiration. I’ll find words and peace and clarity.
I’ll find joy.
- Where do you do your most joyful work?
- How successful do you feel at balancing the necessities of your life with private pleasure right now, today?
- Do you have an active, nasty, mean-minded internal critic? How do you shut that voice up? Do you recognize the voice as belonging to some person in your life?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I once saw the movie 50 First Dates, about a young woman who had no memory. Every day she woke up as a clean slate with no past.
The movie gave me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll never watch it again. In several close relationships, both family and romantic, I’ve experienced the devastating grenade of “I forgot,” or “I don’t remember that.”
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
In chronically abusive and dysfunctional family systems, “I don’t remember that” effectively shuts down any way forward into mutual responsibility, understanding or healing. Our traumatic memories suddenly waver. Did we, after all, make it all up? Did we misunderstand for years and decades? Are we unforgiving, mean and petty of spirit, hateful? Most frightening of all, are we crazy? If we’ve been chronically gaslit, we certainly feel crazy.
In “romantic” relationships, this memory failure is equally damaging. It blocks conflict resolution and discussion. If it’s true, it means the forgetful partner is unable to learn and adapt to the needs of the relationship and the other partner. There can be no learning and growing together. Nothing can change.
Most of all, this kind of response feels to me like an abdication, code for “it’s not my fault and I refuse to take responsibility.” It’s a signal I’m on my own with my questions and my need to understand.
It’s like a door slammed in my face, and I don’t beat on doors slammed in my face, begging for entry. I walk away.
Now I have a relative with dementia, and it’s extraordinary. I have never felt able to get close to this person before, though I have loved them deeply all my life. I’ve also never felt I was anything but a disappointment and a burden to them. I couldn’t find a way to get past their lifetime of accumulated trauma and pain, bitterness and rewritten narratives. As a truth seeker, I’ve been continually stymied and suspicious, believing I could not trust them to ever tell me the plain truth about anything.
Most painful of all, the fullness of my love has been rejected, over and over, for decades. Nothing I am or have to give was welcome; most of it was distinctly unwelcome.
Now I am witnessing a kind of metamorphosis. Gradually, gently, like leaves falling from trees in autumn, my loved one is letting go of their memories. And in some elemental way, as I walk beside them (because I have always been beside them), I am releasing the pain of my memories.
My loved one has experienced periods of extreme agitation and distress, and those are terrible for everyone. But, as the days pass, those periods seem to have passed too, and now I’m witnessing a gentle vagueness, a dream-like drifting, and in some entirely unexpected and inexplicable way I feel I’m at last catching a glimpse of the real person I’ve always wanted to know.
Even more amazing, I can now say “I love you very much,” that simple truth I’ve never been able to freely express, and they say it back to me. And I believe them.
After all these decades of pain and suffering, separation and bleeding wounds, I am finally able, in the words of Eden Ahbez, “just to love and be loved in return.”
This was all I ever wanted out of this relationship (and most others). Just this. To love fully and be loved in return. And I don’t care if it’s only in the moment. I don’t care that they’ll forget this elemental exchange of words of love as soon as they hang up the phone, or possibly before that.
What matters to me is they hear me, they accept my love, they return it. I’ve never had that with this person before. Maintaining bitterness, rewriting history, remembering old hurts, all require memory. And their memory is loosening, unraveling. What’s left is a person I’ve always sensed was there, a person of innocent simplicity, an undamaged personality who can participate in love. Someone who is not haunted by their past. Someone, oddly, who I trust.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
Whatever the next interaction brings, I don’t have to go into it fully armored. Forgiveness has no meaning when dealing with dementia. Cognitive decline is unpredictable, clearly out of anyone’s control. Whatever is said in any given moment will not be remembered, whether words exchanged are of love or not. So, there’s no point in me remembering, or taking anything personally, or trying hard to be acceptable, do it right, stay safe. It feels safe to trust again, to trust the naked soul I’m dealing with now. I don’t have to try to repair our relationship. My feelings of duty and obligation are meaningless, because those expectations reside in memory, and memory flutters in the winter wind, frayed and thin.
My loved one has attained, at least periodically, a kind of peace they have never demonstrated before in my lifetime. Peace from the past. Peace from emotional pain. Because they are at peace, I, at last, can also be at peace.
I hoped death would free us both. I never expected dementia would do it first. We have both found absolution, at least for now.
Whatever comes, these interactions are precious to me. I realize now I still reside somewhere in the heart of this damaged, unhappy person. I was and am loved, at least as best they could and can. Knowing that, feeling it at last, changes everything and heals much.
I am beyond grateful. And that’s a strange feeling in this context. Dementia takes so much away … In this case, it’s loosened prison bars and chains, unlocked shackles and manacles, and left behind something pure and tender, a glimpse of someone fresh and unscarred in an aged and battered body.
I wonder how much of our identity is built from our social context memories. Too bad we can’t just delete certain files, wipe our hard drive clean in spots, and begin again.
I ask myself if it’s wrong to be so happy, so grateful, so relieved at this unexpected turn of events. I tell myself I should feel guilty. I’ve occasionally worked with Alzheimer’s patients, and I frequently work with people who are dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s in their loved ones. I’ve never heard anyone suggest anything positive about it. Once again, I seem to be totally out of step.
I don’t take my self-doubt terribly seriously, though. I always think I’m doing life wrong. I’ve learned to tell that voice to shut up and sit down. Wrong or right, I feel a kind of exhausted joy at the lessening, maybe even the cessation of my loved one’s emotional suffering. Since I was a child I’ve wanted their health and happiness, their peace, wanted it more even than to be allowed to love and to be loved. I never expected those first passionate prayers from my child self would be answered, let alone in this manner. But here we are.
my former life
and realize how quickly
the current travels
dark and irretrievable
blossoms of sound
I made in that time
on the black surface
as if they no longer
From “The Sound of the Wild” by David Whyte
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
I was taught, as a child, it was my job to alleviate distress. One must always respond immediately and help the sufferer. It went far beyond duty and obligation. If I did not fix the distress of others, my childish world would fall apart. Everyone would leave.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
For a child, such consequences are death.
I was also taught “help” meant doing anything and everything I was asked to do, immediately, unquestioningly, and unendingly. My own distress was of no consequence at best and a direct threat, an unwelcome competition, at worst.
That core teaching stayed with me as I grew up, and has been a keynote of my behavior and experience most of my life. I wanted to help people. When people around me suffered, I felt an overwhelming, painful panic, as well as complete responsibility. I had to do everything I could, give the situation my all in order to “help.”
I also grew up with an inability to respond to my own distress. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, emotional and physical pain, were all ignored. My disconnection from my own needs and experience led me into chronic pain, eating disorder, depression, and anxiety. I was unaware of my traumatic wounds. I had no interest in helping myself. Helping myself was selfish, bad, and unloving.
Then I studied emotional intelligence and all the work and therapy I’d done over the years with guides and teachers as well as on my own (see my Resources page) wove together into an intention to reclaim my health and my self.
This blog has been a key part of that work.
I still don’t like to watch people suffer, but I’m more careful now about “helping.” I’ve learned suffering is not necessarily the enemy. We get ill, have painful emotional and physical injuries, have uncomfortable feelings. We age and our bodies and sometimes our minds wear out. To be human is to experience these things; they’re inescapable. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we deal with such events. When someone is suffering, I’ve learned to be less reactive, to remember it’s not my fault or my responsibility to fix it. I’ve learned to notice whether the sufferer is helping themselves before I jump in.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
I have learned a bitter lesson: No one can help someone who will not help themselves.
I realize now we can’t always go back to where we were before we were wounded; we can’t always heal the wound itself. Sometimes our wounds and suffering are taking us into something new and what’s called for is not healing, but tolerance and patience.
What does “help” mean? This is an important question. Does help mean we respond promptly to all demands, whether or not they are safe, sustainable, or even possible? Does help mean we make thoughtful, intentional choices for safety and practicality even if those choices go against what we are being asked to do in terms of “help?” Do we decide what the best “help” is, or does the sufferer get to choose what kind of “help” they want?
I’m still uncomfortable talking about my own pain. Honestly, I’m still uncomfortable even noticing it, but I practice every day at staying present with how things are with me. It feels selfish and wrong, but I know that feeling doesn’t mean it is selfish and wrong, just that it’s very different from my early training. Sometimes the choice that feels worst is the best choice. Sometimes suffering is the only possible road forward into peace, growth and resilience.
None of us has the power to help anyone avoid suffering. I confess I’ve argued with that reality all my life, but it hasn’t done a bit of good. In fact, it’s done harm, most of all to myself.
I have occasionally, in the depths of anguish, asked for help. When I do that, what am I asking for?
Nothing tangible. Not money or a thing. Not love. Not sex. Not a gallon of ice cream. I’m not asking for someone to come along and fix it all, or take responsibility.
I’m asking to be heard. I’m asking for someone to say, “I’m here. You’re not alone. I believe in you. I know your goodness, your strength, your courage.” I’m asking for a safe place to discharge my feelings. This might involve snot, wet Kleenexes, rage, and a raised voice.
A safe place is not a place where someone else takes responsibility and fixes, or asks me to stop feeling my feelings, or is clearly uncomfortable with my suffering. A safe place is provided by someone with healthy boundaries who is willing to witness my distress without feeling compelled to fix it.
Witness. A witness. That’s ultimately what I want. Just someone to be there with me for a little while. I can face my own demons and challenges, but I can’t do it all alone.
Photo by Gemma Chua Tran on Unsplash
None of us can. We are social animals. But we can witness for one another. We can sit quietly, holding a safe space without judgment or a fix or advice, and just witness. Pass the Kleenex.
It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to do. Simply witnessing seems so passive, so weak, so useless. Someone right in front of me is deeply distressed and I simply sit like a bump on a log witnessing? Are you kidding me?
Surely, I can do better than that. I can do more than that. It’s up to me to make their suffering stop!
And yet. And yet. Isn’t finding a witness incredibly hard? How many people in our lives can take on such a role? What an inestimable gift, to be willing to walk beside someone who is suffering, to be willing to stay, to not look away. What if our boundaries were so healthy we could do that? What if we weren’t afraid of suffering? What if we were wise enough, strong enough, to make room for it and sit down beside it?
Someone I love is in great anguish of spirit. They beg me for help, but a very specific kind of help which is ethically and practically impossible for me or anyone else to give. Which makes me an enemy. Which makes my loved one even more alone than they already feel, more victimized, more powerless, more confused.
There is nothing about this that doesn’t suck. I dread the phone calls beyond words because I don’t want to witness this suffering. It feels unbearable. But my loved one must bear it, and if they have to, I can. I choose to witness. It feels like nothing. It’s not what’s wanted. But at this point it’s all I can do. So I will keep calling and answering calls. I will get up in the morning and talk to case managers, nurses, CNAs, palliative care consultants, nursing homes, and whoever else will talk to me. I will update friends and family. Then I will get up the next morning and do it again.
I pray there is some power in witnessing, some rightness. I pray that somehow my love and willingness to remain a witness does a little bit of good, provides some small comfort, lights a candle in the darkness of dementia, even for a moment.
And I search inside my own suffering for wisdom, for healing, for grace, and for faith.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.